For all the entertainment options Syracuse offers, we’ve had to wait a long time to land a furry, mischief-making drag singer standing 6-foot-6 in heels and backed by a taut, four-piece cover band.
At long last the wait is almost over. The Martha Graham Cracker Cabaret, grooming its popular act in Philadelphia for 11 years, finally moves to the bright lights of Storer Auditorium at Onondaga Community College on Monday, Sept. 19, 7 p.m.
The free performance will deliver highly rehearsed, distinctly arranged cover tunes in the service of a golden-throated master of madcap physical improv, a drag queen who feels no special need to look pretty.
“At the end of the day it’s like a concert that no one has probably ever seen before,” explained pianist and group co-founder Victor Fiorillo. “It’s this weird intersection of a small concert with drag theatrics.”
The term here is “monster drag” as opposed to “illusion drag,” in which the artist aspires to look like a woman beyond just the clothes. As the band plays, Martha, the alter ego of actor-singer-comedian Dito van Riegersberg, works the room, exploiting its particular features with impressive physical agility for a big man. Beyond that, it’s hard to know what we’ll get from Martha — or what she’ll get from us.
“I’ve seen him go through women’s bags,” Fiorillo said.
No two shows are alike, but a typical shtick involves Martha getting herself in an awkward physical jam, akin to a cat trapped in a tree, as the band plays on defiantly, eyeing the star with disdain. This builds audience empathy, van Riegersberg explained in a phone interview, which makes the audience more accepting of being part of the joke.
He promised that audience members needn’t stress that they’ll be bullied into participating in the act on stage. Martha craves audience interaction, not reluctant assistants, although the line perhaps seems blurry if she’s restraining you with her powerful unshaven man gams.
A defining piece about the group in Philadelphia magazine recounts a bit in which Martha perched herself on a bar and ensnared a middle-aged man by his neck between her legs. Seemingly oblivious to the patron’s squirming efforts to escape, she crooned a lovely rendition of Whitney Houston’s “I Have Nothing.” Eventually, the man just submitted and listened to the song like everyone else.
For all the nonsense, van Riegersberg’s vocal talents are no joke. “He has a beautiful voice,” Fiorillo said.
But isn’t trapping a man between your legs a prime example of forced audience participation? “He didn’t have to do anything,” van Riegersberg insisted. “He just had to suffer.”
Donna Stuccio, chair of OCC’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety department, lured the act by submitting a winning proposal to college president Casey Crabill’s Arts Across Campus initiative, a 2-year-old program that promotes artistic projects at the school. The theme for this cycle was “Beauty.” Stuccio tied her pitch to an assignment on the 1969 Stonewall Riots, a gay uprising against police abuses that took place during a period when it was illegal to perform in drag.
“I want my students to be sensitive to the things they might be uncomfortable around,” Stuccio said.
Doors open at 6:30 p.m. Admission is first come, first serve, with no assigned seating.